Dear Elected Official. Let's talk quality...

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Por Elizabeth Gasiorowski Denis
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Governments - local or otherwise - are under increasing pressure around the world to provide results that matter to the public, often within severe resource constraints. Now they are taking pointers from the private sector by using ISO 9001 for quality management to provide efficient and reliable services vital to the lives of millions of people.

Long lines to get your driver’s license, poorly maintained hospitals, overcrowded/understaffed schools, disorganized voting processes, delays in election night results, etc., etc. Does this sound all too familiar? None of us can ignore the fact that the public sector – despite being essential in a civilized society – hasn’t had the best reputation. This has been compounded in recent years by tightening public budgets, and more and more cutbacks to public services. At the same time, government officials and managers are challenged to overcome the public’s lack of trust in government at all levels.

The public sector hasn’t had the best reputation.

The question is, what can be done to bolster the public sector and its decaying image? Clearly, more creative solutions must be devised, and that’s exactly what many public officials are doing as they take responsibility for achieving results that matter to the public by implementing effective, reliable and quality services. According to them, ISO 9001 is the answer. The acclaimed quality management standard provides a tried and tested framework for managing your organization’s processes and activities.

ISO 9001 can help government for the same reason it helps large corporations. It provides management control of diverse operations by allowing objectives to be rolled out to front-line units with clear and transparent measures, enhancing the flow and visibility of information for management, and integrating processes to achieve better service delivery and customer satisfaction.

Does this mean governments should be run like a business? Of course not, it simply means that any entity that ignores these realities will eventually “go out of business” – whether or not it’s a business.

Customers count – and citizens too

Mother and child put the ballot in the box during early parliamentary elections in Serbia.

To make government work in the 21st century demands the same basic “quality approach” as in any business. Whether in the public or private sector, without customers, or with unhappy customers or stakeholders, any organization is in peril!

Let’s start with local authorities, the subject of most of the debate about governance today. Local governments are the main service providers to citizens all over the world and their efficient and reliable performance is vital to the lives of millions of people. How many public services? How should the services be financed? How much and where should we cut? A good place to start is discussing how we can implement ISO 9001, making the necessary decisions to bring efficient and reliable services in line with customer needs and expectations.

That’s because, in re-thinking government, the first thing to do is to improve the quality of urban public goods and services, and the governance that is behind them. And this is where ISO 18091 can make a difference.

Published in early 2014, ISO 18091 is the first ISO standard directed at the public sector that gives guidelines for the implementation of ISO 9001 in local government. With a robust quality management system in place, a local government can focus on satisfying the needs and expectations of the community.

It is an essential roadmap for local governments to organize themselves in a comprehensive way, focusing on continual improvement where it matters. It aims to :

  • Empower citizens and governments together
  • Ensure not only effectiveness but legitimacy
  • Provide a common language and understanding between politicians and technicians, and enable comparability across countries and other local governments
  • Serve the local population by making politically viable those things that are technically indispensable
  • Create a useful tool for the UN millennium goals and objectives for a sustainable world and smart cities
  • Produce reliability – essential for society

As Carlos Gadsden, Convenor of ISO/TC 176 that developed the standard, says: “ISO 18091 constitutes an excellent tool for local governments to reassure citizens that their needs and expectations are fully understood and met on a consistent basis and in a timely manner.” By strengthening integrity in local governance, we can build stronger regional and national governments and support international efforts.

Sustainable and smart cities

There is also, I’m happy to say, an important role for local governments in creating sustainable communities where quality, cost-effective and consistent public services successfully promote sustainable economic prosperity and social justice. In fact, governments today can provide stability and promote good governance when these are lacking at a regional or national level. Consider reliable cities for instance. Many projects – including Microsoft’s CityNext – are dabbling in increasing the efficient use of resources and the quality of life of its citizens in a bid to create healthier, greener, more prosperous cities for the future.

Erick Stephens, Chief Technology Officer, Public Sector APAC at Microsoft, sees ISO 18091 as a huge benefit for reliable cities. “ISO 18091 provides any city, regardless of its size or type, with a holistic vision of the real issues for continual improvement. Together with the CityNext initiative, it forms a very powerful combination that cities can adopt to become truly ‘smart’ and in essence more reliable.”

Growing faster than ever before, cities are the economic and cultural hubs that drive global economies and environmental change. Today’s cities are experiencing unprecedented challenges, including rapid urbanization, modernization mandates, and economic austerity pressures. Microsoft CityNext and ISO 18091, says Stephens, help cities make the leap into a new era of innovation that includes the right combination of public policies and technologies – cloud technology, mobile devices, data analytics, and social networks – empowering cities to take a people-first approach and make a real impact.

Free and fair elections

An Indian woman casts her vote at a polling station on 23 April 2009 in the Muslim-dominated town of Mukalmua, near Guwahati, India.

And that brings us to the third aspect that citizens of all advanced democracies appear to hold dear today: free and fair elections. There’s no sugar-coating the fact that, in some countries, there is gross negligence at election time – the pillar of any democracy. But there are better and worse ways to deal with these realities, one of which might involve bringing ISO/TS 17582 and quality management to electoral bodies.

Tyler Finn, from the Organization of American States (OAS), believes the new ISO technical specification applies the time-tested quality management system of ISO 9001 to a specifically electoral context: “ISO/TS 17582 creates the framework for a quality management system that helps electoral bodies provide more reliable and transparent electoral services.”

The newly published ISO/TS 17582 is important for electoral bodies because it aims to build confidence in elections through increased transparency, planning and efficiency in electoral processes, all of which are fundamental to any election:

  • Voter registration
  • Registration of political organizations and candidates
  • Electoral logistics
  • Vote casting
  • Vote counting and declaration of results
  • Electoral education
  • Oversight of campaign financing
  • Resolution of electoral disputes

In this sense, adds Finn, ISO/TS 17582 will be of particular interest to electoral bodies in budding democracies where instilling new-found confidence in the electoral system can determine the success of an election. The Organization of American States was the catalyst for the creation of a certifiable international electoral standard. The new technical specification, developed in conjunction with a group of electoral authorities from the region, places the organization at the vanguard of efforts to build institutional capacity and promote the professionalism of electoral authorities.

Electoral bodies that choose to adopt the standard stand to benefit in a number of ways. ISO/TS 17582 promotes a high level of organization, efficiency and management throughout the electoral cycle. It also provides a flexible structure that permits the continual improvement of electoral bodies in order to respond adequately to the diverse challenges presented by electoral administration. Furthermore, by certifying against ISO/TS 17582, an electoral body publicly asserts its commitment to transparent electoral processes, thereby building public confidence in electoral services.

So, to whet your appetites, here are some examples of the benefits experienced by electoral bodies around the world that have implemented ISO’s quality management standards.

  • Guiding transparent and credible electoral processes. As the National Electoral Board of Peru found out: “[ISO/TS 17582] represents a binding commitment to achieving continuous process improvement. The aim is to provide a better quality of service, and our citizensʼ appreciation makes this effort well worth it.”
  • Ensuring the objectivity of electoral results. According to a Russian governmental authority that has implemented quality: “The application of ISO/TS 17582 in Russian electoral bodies will significantly improve public acceptance of, and confidence in, the electoral results. This is an important aspect of political stability in Russia.” Many also argue that implementing ISO/TS 17582 will lead to a substantial reduction of the number of electoral disputes.
  • Strengthening democracy. Implementing a quality management system under ISO/TS 17582 is vital, confirmed another public authority, this time in Ecuador. The National Electoral Council of Ecuador is committed to directing its efforts towards implementing a system that ensures a participatory, equitable, egalitarian, intercultural, free, democratic and just service for elections. Choosing quality as the model on which to structure public service is a key pillar for the continual improvement of the institution.

Beyond quality

We will need to completely redesign and reposition government.

ISO 9001 is by far the world’s most established quality framework, currently being used by over 1.5 million organizations in 191 countries. Those are impressive numbers, and among the primary reasons why the public sector is sitting up and taking notice.

Certification is not necessary to achieve a government’s objectives of reliability, responsiveness and transparency. Nor should it be regarded as the be-all and end-all, for once a government is delivering the end goods, it needs to look beyond conformance to performance in order to maintain its high standards and credibility.

Re-thinking quality in government will help, but it still won’t make government competitive for the 21st century. To do that, we will need to completely redesign and reposition government to make it fit for the challenges of our dawning century – for example by giving government officials the flexibility, tools and resources they need to make a results-oriented, post-bureaucratic government succeed. A mammoth task by all accounts.

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Elizabeth Gasiorowski-Denis

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